Travel’s Mixed Bag

I am back from Japan, where I had many beautiful experiences, a couple of weird ones, and some I cannot write until later.

“Was it transcendent?” my nephew asked at the barbecue at the lake. He is generous and kind, so he was hoping I would say yes, most of all for my sake.

It was, which is saying a lot when you have already been around the block a couple or three times. The Japan trip was transcendent, transformative, all the modifiers we use too often and do not really mean. It was the sort of high-level experience I want my children to know I had, so that years from now they will not wonder if I was happy enough in my private life, apart from our relationship. A friend says it is even meaningful for them to know they are the sons of a father who went and did this thing.

That does not mean the travel was always easy or even pleasurable, which is in fact a large part of the point, especially for anyone hoping to catch something true in the writing of it. Paul Theroux says:


A travel book has the capacity to express a country’s heart—and perhaps the heart of a traveler too—but only as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing and the half-truths in official handouts; as long as it concentrates on people in their landscape, and it includes the discomforts as well as the pleasures, the dissonance as well as the melodies, the contradictions and the vivid trivia—the fungi on the wet boots.


The photos look enviable on Facebook, and I end up feeling guilty about that. I posted them for my family, not to make someone feel bad that they had no tofu pudding. Chances are good they did not want tofu pudding, or anything it took to get to the pudding pot.

Because the photos also fail to capture the fatigue of flying; taking trains, buses, and cabs; hiking, humping bags, and sleeping in strange beds every night. The feeling of walking around in dirty clothes, sometimes sleeping in them too. Rain that drives you into a plastic rain suit under your load, but the heat and humidity are a misery, you are soaked anyway, with sweat, so you strip it all off to be cold in the rain. The bad knee and hip and ankle in bear country, a kind of treachery of the body. The boredom of passage across a landscape that has begun to be familiar, with only yourself for company, and time doing what it wants. The chafing, so even a light daypack rubs you raw. Dragging heavy suitcases up from a subway, through a department store in the afternoon rush, only to be told the passage you are looking for is in the subway—and making this comedy of errors five times in a row, but it is not funny; there is little left. Waiting two-and-a-half hours in the humanity of a waiting room then discovering you are not at the station where you need to be. Just as you have sagged in relief at getting to your destination, learning there is one more local to catch.

Exhausted, sun-baked, dehydrated, hungry; sore back, Plantar fasciitis; sleeplessness and weird dreams; jetlag, twice; the feeling of waking and not knowing which continent you are on or if the slamming door and shout that woke you is your child in need.

The question is not whether I loved it. Of course I did, every minute; it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I burned that thing down to the nub. The question is whether I would do it all over again right now, as some have asked, and that answer has to be no, for now.

Something begins to happen, when I travel, just short of three weeks into a trip. I used to think I began to wear out at that point because the travel itself was strenuous. I remember feeling an urge in Vietnam once to be home again, sitting on my own couch, drinking Diet Coke from my own glass. It sounds pathetic, but there is something important in it.

Now I think that is the point at which a place begins to become real. I no longer operate on anticipation and excitement; the expectations born of films, books, and word of mouth begin to pale next to the reality, which is often both bigger and much smaller than the distant conjecture. It is the point where I understand just how much I do not belong to this place, and it is time to either settle in or leave.

My friend and I tried to see Fuji on our last day. I was amused to read that Basho missed it on one of his trips, as we did, for the same reasons:


Heavy falling mist—

Mount Fuji not visible,

but still intriguing

(tr Hamill)


We spent the entire day in a little town with nothing to see and nowhere to go, most of those hours packed into a rail station with everyone else trying to stay dry. You never know how a journey will go; all you can do is try.

As we sped away on the express, acceptingly, a Japanese woman scurried up the car to us and pointed out the window. Fuji-san loomed behind the fog. She went to her seat, made origami models of the phenomenon for each of us—little paper mountains that slid behind white paper veils and out again—and brought them to us. We bowed in gratitude and humility.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.